Social workers tell of unacceptable risks in child protection

“There was one night that stands out when [children from X] were murdered […] I didn’t think my legs would take me up the stairs to look at the waiting list to see if they were on our waiting list. And I think that that kind of anxiety nobody should have to live with.”

Social workers tell of unacceptable risks in child protection

Such is the psychological impact on social workers grappling with the possibility that children are exposed to unacceptable risk because of a failure to allocate a social worker where circumstances meet the threshold for intervention.

Research conducted in the Cork area by Olivia O’Connell, implementation officer with Tusla, found unallocated cases are primarily a result of insufficient appropriate staff, including team leaders, social workers, childcare leaders, family support workers, and admin support workers which leads to saturated caseloads.

The situation is expected to worsen with full commencement of the Children First Act on December 11. The legislation places a mandatory requirement to report suspected child abuse on all organisations and individuals dealing with children.

Ms O’Connell conducted the qualitative research due to concern that the commencement of mandatory reporting would increase the number of referrals to child protection and welfare departments.

Social workers spoke about the challenges of managing the “implicit risk” of having unallocated cases. They’re a “bomb waiting to explode […] once [a case] is put on a waiting list I think all bets are off”, one said.

Another said: “Sometimes we are sitting there writing about the fire we put out last night while we can see the smoke up the hill but we can’t go because we have to write about the fire we put out last night.”

Ms O’Connell said a number of strategies could be implemented going forward for management of cases awaiting allocation, including the implementation of properly resourced, community-based alternatives to tackle an increase in referrals, and monthly team shutdown days to review, allocate, and/or close cases. At a national level, there should be a review of policies having a negative impact on the number of allocated cases.

Ms O’Connell will present her research, entitled ‘Narrating the numbers — Qualitative review of unallocated child protection and welfare cases in the Cork area , with future management strategies,’ at the sixth National Child Protection and Welfare Social Work conference, which takes place at University College Cork tomorrow.

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